Golden Pavilion Temple in Kyoto, Japan

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The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji, 金閣寺) in Kyoto, Japan is a world-renowned temple named (and famous) for its pure gold leaf finishing. In this post we’ll cover some of the pros and cons of visiting the Golden Pavilion, share some photos from our experience there, and offer random thoughts and history on the pavilion.

For starters, the Golden Pavilion is a colloquial name, derived (obviously) from the appearance of the exterior. While pretty much everyone calls it the Golden Pavilion, it’s known as Kinkaku-ji in Japan, which roughly translates to “Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” This is despite its official Japanese name being Rokuon-ji, which translates to “Deer Garden Temple.” I saw no deer at the Golden Pavilion, which might explain why no one calls it Rokuon-ji.

The Golden Pavilion holds a place as one of the most prominent icons of Kyoto, and really, all of Japan. Open just about any travel guidebook about Japan and you’ll find this on their top 10 places to visit. In all of our trips to Kyoto, we’ve found the Golden Pavilion to be the most popular spot we’ve visited. It’s unquestionably popular and likely to be busy no matter when you visit–the real question is whether it lives up to the hype…

The answer for me is no. Despite the Golden Pavilion’s popularity, it was one of the least impressive temple we visited on our first trip to Kyoto. It was actually our first stop on that first trip and the experience was pretty anticlimactic. It made us wonder whether the rest of Kyoto would be a disappointment.

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Fortunately, it was not. It seems like a lot of the most iconic places in the world are less impressive to visit than lesser-known alternatives in the same area (or maybe that’s just us).

Kyoto seemed to hold true to this “rule” with the Golden Pavilion being its version of the overrated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or Times Square in New York.

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Now, overrated does not necessarily mean bad. In fact, the Golden Pavilion is pretty cool. It’s just not the end-all, be-all of Kyoto as many planning resources suggest.

It’s a beautiful pavilion, and we would recommend going to see it, just temper your expectations. My main qualm with the Golden Pavilion is that it’s not even remotely substantive; you go there, look at the pretty temple, wander around a pond, and that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing particularly moving about it, nor is there any reason to linger here. This is atypical of temples or shrines in Kyoto.

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While the main draw is definitely the Temple itself, I think for most guests the gardens and grounds of the Golden Pavilion will be a pleasant surprise. After viewing Kinkakuji from across the pond, you will pass by the head priest’s former living quarters, which is not open to the public.

The path then circles around the Golden Pavilion from behind, leading through the temple’s gardens. From the backside of the Golden Pavilion, you get the most up-close view (see below) of the lavish exterior.

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The Golden Pavilion’s gardens retain their original design, and have a meticulously maintained style. In the gardens, you can see Anmintaku Pond, Japanese statues, and the Sekkatei Teahouse before exiting the paid temple area. All of this is quite lovely, albeit crowded.

The Golden Pavilion gets even more crowded once you’re outside the exit, and here you’ll find souvenir shops, another tea garden, and plenty of food vendors. There’s also Fudo Hall, a small temple hall housing a statue of Fudo Myoo, one of the Five Wisdom Kings. As this is an area where tour groups tend to congregate by the busload, it can be chaotic.

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All hope is not lost, though–the vendors have matcha ice cream! Actually, if you’ve been to Japan, this should come as no surprise. Green tea ice cream is available at pretty much every temple and shrine. (It’s not for everyone, but you should at least try it.)

Directly across the street, you’ll find a slew of restaurants and other tourist spots, all of which are decidedly less busy. We had lunch at one of these (I don’t recall which, unfortunately) and it was excellent, and reasonably priced.

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Speaking of cost, the paid areas of the Golden Pavilion cost 400 yen, and are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Getting to the Golden Pavilion can be a bit tricky–the best option is from Kyoto Station by direct Kyoto City Bus numbers 101 or 205, which makes numerous stops and takes about 40 minutes (you’ll know when you’re there–it’s where most visitors get off the bus).

In terms of other tips, the easy recommendation for the Golden Pavilion is to arrive early, before the tour buses show up and the walkways become incredibly crowded. I’m going to buck that conventional wisdom and suggest going whenever. Since you cannot go inside the Golden Pavilion, and are really just walking along a wide path to look at the Golden Pavilion from across a pond, what difference does it make?

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I took all of the photos in this post on an incredibly busy day, but you can’t tell the difference because water separates visitors from the Golden Pavilion.

Moreover, unlike other temples and shrines in Japan, this is not exactly a contemplative and spiritual experience, so I don’t think it makes much of a difference if you’re here at a crowded versus uncrowded time.

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Ultimately, I know this post is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Golden Pavilion. You should go anyway and make up your own mind about it, though (I do highly recommend the Silver Pavilion, which is the ‘companion’ location to the Golden Pavilion). With the Golden Pavilion being so highly regarded by just about every Japan travel expert and visitors to Kyoto, you might very well disagree with me. Also, it’s worth reiterating that even though I feel the Golden Pavilion is overrated does not mean I don’t like it–I do like it. I just wouldn’t put it in my top 5 (or maybe even top 10) for Kyoto. As compared to most other people, this seems to put me in the extreme minority.

If you’re planning a visit to Kyoto, Japan, please check out my other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there. Kyoto has a lot of things to see and do, so I also highly recommend the Lonely Planet Kyoto Guide to help better develop an efficient plan while there. 

Your Thoughts…

Have you been to the Golden Pavilion? Any thoughts on other popular sights that overrated? Have you visited the Silver Pavilion, too? Which did you prefer? Would you recommend the Golden Pavilion to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this Temple interest you? Please share any of your thoughts on these things (or other topics) in the comments!

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11 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I’d love to get to ride a bullet train some day. I think the fastest I’ve been is 160 km/hr in Switzerland.

    For the photo, this is one where I’d actually like to see a little more green and less red. (Keeping in mind that my opinions are worth about as much as the non-existent paper they are printed on.)

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Everything about the bullet train is awesome. We bought a steeply ‘foreigner’ rail pass that provided unlimited rail use for 7 days. We were half-tempted to just ride around on the bullet train the entire time!

      As for the color, I think you may be right. I normally tend to prefer warms and reds to cools and greens in the white balance/tint breakdown, but I need to realize that sometimes cools and greens are the better artistic direction for a photo. Keeping that in mind, I edited a shot last night that is very cool, and I really like it. Thanks for the feedback. I always value others’ opinions on my shots. Outside perspective helps us grow as photographers!

      Reply
  2. Bob Lata
    Bob Lata says:

    Great posts on Kyoto! I would welcome a copy of your one-day itinerary for your walk south from the Silver Pavilion. Many thanks in advance!

    Reply
  3. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    Good information, thanks.
    So the closest they let you get is about 50 feet away or so? And is this normal for many temples or shrines in Japan, or are you allowed to go inside?
    Slightly unrelated (slightly as is completely) I would love to see some tips or reviews from Shanghai and Hong Kong (I believe there may be Disney parks there, I don’t know if you were aware or not) but I am finding it harder to find great info on these areas and you are always a good source for me. Thanks again as usual.

    Reply
  4. Scott
    Scott says:

    While I agree you can see Kinkaku-ji whenever, my recommendation is for it to be the second temple to visit on one of the days you’re in Kyoto. The reason is you want to see Ryōan-ji (the famous Zen rock garden) as soon as it opens, because crowds will totally ruin the atmosphere of this temple. Kinkaku-ji is a 1.6 km walk from there, so you might as well see that temple next.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Interesting tip–thanks for that. We’ve actually yet to do Ryōan-ji (it’s on our list, though), so I’ll have to keep in mind that it’s best experienced early in the morning.

      Reply
  5. Vlad B
    Vlad B says:

    In my experience, Kinkaku-Ji is best at sunset or close to, because of the colors, and the (relative) lack of tourists. It was a bit less overwhelming about 1/2 hour before closing (which is all you need, really).
    As far as Ryoan-Ji, I also found that arriving 1 to 1/2 hour before closing is best. They actually let you linger for a bit after closing time, 10-15 minutes, and don’t kick you out right away. At the very end, just a few people remained, and it was a truly contemplative experience.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That’s an excellent tip! I had not considered doing it at the end of the day, but that makes perfect sense. You really don’t need all that much time, and you get to see it kissed by the setting sun.

      Reply
  6. wallis
    wallis says:

    great post!! Do they let you set up tri pods at any of these spots or because of the crowds of people its not allowed?

    Reply

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